Agents hired by US security services to contact potential Isis fighters cannot speak fluent Arabic and do not understand the differences between the world’s largest terrorist groups, an investigation has found.
The secretive WebOps programme sees 120 staff targeting “at-risk audiences” abroad to prevent radicalisation, disrupting jihadi propaganda and bolstering opponents, according to the US Department of Defence.
An official boasted last year that the initiative worked “through regular engagement, in-language, with regional target audiences online, using factual information consistent with our approved narratives”.
But former employees of the programme, based at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, say the supposedly Arabic-speaking analysts charged with scouring social media for extremists frequently cannot understand the language or ideology they needed to wield against sophisticated Isis recruiters.
One former worker told the Associated Press translators regularly mix up the Arabic words for “salad” and “authority”, leading to ridicule on social media.
Mimicking a conversation between managers and new staff, he said: “‘Do you speak Arabic?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘How do you say 'good morning?' Oh, you can do that? You are an expert. You are hired.
Another ex-employee recalled a colleague claiming she was disregarding material because it was written in Farsi or Urdu, only to find herself that the messages were in Arabic.
WebOps agents sift through Twitter and other sites to look for people showing signs of radicalisation, then engage with them under assumed identities in attempts to reverse the process.
“We use mostly commercial off-the-shelf regular old [searches] to identify keywords associated with the adversary’s narrative, along with obviously manual analyst target-audience analysis,” an official told the Pentagon’s press department last year.
“And for at-risk users it’s a similar process; we identify common terms that are publicly searchable that indicate an individual is sympathetic to the adversary’s narrative.”
But once in touch, agents can allegedly struggle with challenging jihadi ideology they fail to understand, or distinguishing between myriad Islamist groups active across the Middle East, Asia, Europe and Africa.
Isis and al-Qaeda are locked in bloody competition for recruits and territory, using affiliates and fronts such as Boko Haram (Isis) and al-Shabaab (al-Qaeda) to wage sectarian conflicts and terror attacks.
Both groups, as well as the Taliban and rival militant organisations across Syria and Iraq, use social media to spread propaganda and target new followers through general and direct messages from recruiters.
While sharing Islamist and jihadi traits, supporters of various groups use distinct language and references to opposing religious leaders and scholars.
But many WebOps employees allegedly "don't know the difference between Hezbollah and Hamas", said one former agent, referring to the Lebanese Shia group and Palestinian Sunni organisation respectively.
Others complained their colleagues gave themselves away by failing to understand sectarian differences between the two main Islamic factions and regional nuances.
Despite primarily targeting Syria, Iraq and Yemen, staff from those countries are reportedly largely absent from WebOps, where many agents are instead from Morocco.
Officials stress that assessments are run to “measure the effectiveness of web operations”, adding: “[Psychological operations] is a traditional military activity, and if it’s directed at an adversary communications [capability], then simply countering or disrupting adversary communication could in and of itself be a measure of effectiveness.”
However, Colsa Corporation, the private firm contracted to run the programme, runs the assessments in-house with their own scoring team, who attempt to measure whether interactions have shown a decrease in radical statements.
Former members told the AP a manager encouraged them to indicate progress against extremism even if none was seen, in an apparent attempt to maintain funding for the programme.
The British Government is currently deepening cooperation with the US over online anti-Isis programmes, with Theresa May saying the two nations were “stepping up our efforts to counter Daesh in cyber space” during her meeting with Donald Trump in Washington.
As well as intervention by intelligence agencies including GCHQ, the Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit run by the Metropolitan Police removes unlawful material from the internet, while working with online firms to remove extremist posts.
A spokesperson for US Central Command said he was aware of the allegations but that it would be "inappropriate for us to comment pending the results of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) investigation".
Colsa Corp did not respond to The Independent’s request for comment.
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